Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Iranian soccer fans protest government’s failure to rescue Lake Orumiyeh

By James M. Dorsey

Iranian authorities have arrested scores of soccer fans and protesters demanding during a match this weekend that the government take measures to prevent Lake Orumiyeh in the predominantly Azeri northwest of the country from drying up.

The protest followed an Iranian parliament vote against allocating funds to channel water from the Araz River to raise the level of the salt lake that lies between the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan near the border with Turkey. Parliament suggested instead that Azeris living near the lake be relocated.

The protest was the third time this year that anti-government sentiment spilled onto the soccer pitch, one of the few places that strength of numbers and moments of intense passion spark expressions of dissent.

The protest erupted during a match on August 25 in the city of Tabriz between storied Iranian top league team Tractor Sazi SC, a flashpoint of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics that is owned by state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), and another local team, Shahrdari Tabriz SC.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Thousands of fans chanted "Lake Urmia is dying, the Majlis orders its execution" during Tractor Sazi’s match against Shahrdari.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that at least 30 ethnic Azeris had been arrested because of the protests, some of them during an iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast. Protesters were also reportedly arrested in Ardabil and other Iranian Azerbaijani cities.

RFE quoted Azeri human rights activist Vahid Qaradagli as saying the arrests were designed to prevent further protests. Mr. Qaradagli said tha some 10 million tons of salt would be exposed and pose a risk to the environment and public health if the lake dried up.

Lake Orumiyeh (Source: Mehr News Agency)

Iranian soccer pitches are battlefields for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a soccer fan who sees the game as a way to polish his tarnished images, and fans who view it as a venue to express dissent.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to curry popular favour.

Mr. Ahmadinejad went as far as in 2006 trying to lift the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadiums, but in an early public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The funeral in May of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

A fan waves a photo of late defender Nasser Hejazi at the entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran (Source: France 24)

Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

In a rare occurrence, some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Iran bans women from stadiums in accordance with its strict segregation of genders in public places.

Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April to task for Iran’s gaping income differences and budgetary measures which hit the poorest the hardest.

The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".

The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) postponed in February league matches in Tehran in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the anti-government protests in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled presidents Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Monday, January 17, 2011

Demonstrations in Libya and Jordan put Tunisian model to the test

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

The protests in Libya against corruption throw up the question whether the Tunisian crisis heralds the beginning of the end for autocratic Arab leaders. The West is encouraged and is hoping for lasting change.

The specter of authoritarian regimes falling like dominoes may however be overly optimistic. While there is no doubt that developments in Tunisia have emboldened the discontent across a swath of land stretching from Morocco to the Gulf, it remains to be seen, according to analysts, whether protestors in other Arab countries have the wherewithal to sustain demonstrations and casualties for weeks and to what degree Arab governments have learnt lessons from the Tunisian experience.

Demonstrations in Algeria subsided last week after authorities moved to roll back increases in prices of commodities. Protestors in Jordan have yet to show that they are cut from the same cloth as their counterparts in Tunisia.

Protests in Libya erupted three days ago, but have so far largely gone unnoticed by the international media with the exception of a few reports in the Arab press as well as statements and videos circulated on the Internet by Libyan opposition groups. The Libyan opposition website Almanara reported that demonstrators had clashed with security forces in the town of Al Bayda, 800 kilometers (500 milies) east of Tripoli, after throwing stones at government offices in the town and setting a government office on fire. The protesters were demanding "decent housing and a dignified life," Almanara said.

Libyan activists and opposition groups reported that hundreds of people had also occupied some 600 empty apartments in Beghazi, Libya's second largest city, and 800 units in Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. The activists said the squatters had been expecting to move into new homes promised to them under a government housing scheme, but had seen apartments they had already paid for awarded to others.

"Bani Walid has no basic services; thousands of people are without houses and the local authority is corrupted, it only delivers services with bribes. Nothing will make Bani Walid calm but freedom, justice and transparency," the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya said in a statement on its website. The Front reported that the lawyers in Benghazi were joining the protests of the squatters.

Lessons to be learned?

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi appears to have drawn a lesson from President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's failed handling of the protests in Tunisia, ordering police to avoid clashes with demonstrators while protecting government buildings. The country's Revolutionary Council said in a statement that it would investigate the complaints and promised that "all the problems will be solved soon through the legitimate authorities."

At the same time, however, Gaddafi true to his idiosyncratic eccentrism, voiced what other leaders probably believe but have kept to themselves. Describing the departure of Ben Ali as "a great loss" for Tunisia, the Libyan leader said he still considered Ben Ali the country's constitutional leader.

The United States and the European Union have so far responded cautiously to the wave of protests in the Arab world, fearing that the unrest could destabilize the volatile region and bring anti-Western forces to power. "The European Union has an interest in keeping a strong partnership. This is why countries including France, Spain and Italy have not clearly condemned what happened," Ivan Ureta, a professor of international relations at King's College in London, told Deutsche Welle.

A key concern for the US and the EU is that the protests in most Arab countries like Libya and Jordan, where thousands demonstrated over the weekend against government economic policies and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, are backed by Islamist opposition forces.

"As in all cases of revolution, you must be careful what you wish for. The politics and demographics in these countries mean that what replaces the corrupt old regimes could be even worse; strengthening the hands of terrorists and radicals," says Mark Almond, a visiting professor in international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University.

Islamist influence

Analysts note that the absence of Islamists in the Tunisian protests is because Tunisia, unlike other Arab countries, has since its independence aggressively sought to ban Islamists from public life.

"Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows. The nature of the opposition and the willingness of the Tunisian government to back down are not coincidental. If it had been clear that Islamist opposition figures were playing a large role in the current unrest, the government would likely have doubled down on repressive measures," says Michael Koplow, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, in a commentary in Foreign Policy.

Islamists are nonetheless certain to exploit the widespread discontent and may benefit once protesters realize that change involves a lot more than toppling a corrupt and authoritarian leader. Ben Ali's departure has thrown Tunisia into turmoil. The country, at least for now has lost tourism, one of its main sources of foreign income. With the evacuation of thousands of European tourists, it will be some time before Tunisian tourism regains lost ground.

The rise of secularism

In a first sign of the reemergence of the Islamists, Rached Ghannouchi, the 69-year old leader of Tunisia's banned Nahda or Renaissance movement, announced on Sunday that he was returning to Tunisia from his 22 years in exile in London.

Analysts say that Ghannouchi will encounter a country very different from the one he left. While he still may have supporters in Tunisia, he does not have an infrastructure and many of those Islamists that remained in the country have radicalized and are likely to see Ghannouchi as a spent force too willing to compromise.

More importantly however, Tunisia's long-standing suppression of the Islamists has allowed secularism to build roots that many Tunisians will want to preserve. Tunisian-born Israeli sociologist Claude Sitbon notes that Tunisians on the Internet joked that Ghannouchi would be met at the airport by bikini-clad women. "Women have achieved an amazing status in Tunisia. They wear jeans in the street and bikinis on the beach; women are judges and ambassadors. Tunisians won't want to lose that," Sitbon says.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Twin Threats of Protests and Cessation Set Stage for Change in MidEast and North Africa

By James M. Dorsey

A rare wave of protests across the Arab world against widespread economic mismanagement, unemployment, corruption and lack of civil liberties as well as the probable partition of Sudan potentially set the stage for the redrawing of the political map of the Middle East and North Africa.

The protests and referendum likely to establish oil-rich southern Sudan as an independent state spotlight the failure of most Middle Eastern and North African regimes to provide economic prospects for their populations and guarantee security and equal rights for religious and ethnic minorities. A spate of recent deadly attacks targeting Christians in Iraq and Egypt has further focused attention on inflamed religious and ethnic tensions and the region’s lack of minority rights.

Middle Eastern governments fear, according to officials and Western diplomats, that an independent southern Sudan will fuel nationalist aspirations of rebels in Darfur, secessionists in southern Yemen; Shiite rebels in northern Yemen; non-Islamist controlled parts of Somalia; Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey; Berbers across North Africa and Azerbaijanis in northern Iran. The region’s military and security dominated regimes also worry that the protests will further embolden their populations to vent boiling anger and pent-up frustration with long-standing authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent rule. Last week’s warning by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that record food prices are likely to increase even more as a result of erratic global weather patterns threatens to further tempers and tensions.

Several Arab states have moved to curb commodity prices in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to their countries. Libya abolished taxes and custom duties on wheat-based products, rice, vegetable oil, sugar and infant milk. Morocco has begun subsidizing imports to ensure that the price of soft milling wheat does not rise in tunes with hikes on world markets.

Jordanian King Abdullah in a bid to prevent an escalation of mounting tension between Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians this week ordered his government to reduce prices of commodities, particularly rice and sugar, freeze plans to raise public transportation fees and accelerate initiation of job creation projects. The order came as Jordanian trade unions called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday to demand better living standards and the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Jordan’s Islamist opposition said it had yet to decide whether it would support the protest, but warned that price hikes would spark “an unprecedented explosion” similar to the turmoil in Tunisia and Algeria.

“The government is seeking to contain mounting public resentment. Events in Tunisia and Algeria are forcing it to act because Jordanians have seen that protests produce results,” says Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. Masri was referring to Algeria’s weekend decision to reduce commodity prices in response to sustained daily protests that left at least three people dead, the Tunisian government’s inability to quell a month of demonstrations in which so far up to 50 people are believed to have been killed and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s bid this week to meet some of the protestor’s demands by announcing that he would not again run for office when his term ends in 2014, firing his interior minister, promising to release detained demonstrators and launching an investigation into corruption. “Price hikes are certain to increase anger at the government’s policies,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, a Jordanian Islamic Action Front spokesman.

While the demonstrations in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as well as recent soccer riots in Jordan and Iran and human rights-related protests in Kuwait are unlikely to immediately overturn governments, they signal a growing popular refusal across the region to continue to accept the status quo. Even in Saudi Arabia where public protests are particularly rare, unemployed teachers are publicly protesting government job creation policies. Tunisian trade unions have said they would continue their protests despite Ben Ali’s announced concessions.

The hardening of the region’s social and economic battle lines creates stark choices for both Middle Eastern and Western governments. Desperate to cling to power, Middle Eastern regimes are likely to increase repression coupled with window dressing measures that create the impression of responding to widespread discontent rather than opt for real political, economic and social reform. This week’s concessions by Ben Ali come after the president’s efforts to squash the protests by charging that the protesters were being manipulated by foreign terrorists failed. Ben Ali’s assertion contrasted starkly with the fact that Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been conspicuously silent about the ongoing turmoil in its theater of operations and the fact that the protests were void of any Islamist tint.

Western diplomats say that the fact that a majority of the dead in Tunisia were killed by security forces after the Obama administration, the European Union and the United Nations called on Tunisia to exercise restraint in the use of force and respect fundamental freedoms point to a sense of alarm within the government that makes it less susceptible to US and European pressure. “It’s inconceivable that they are not worried that this is the beginning of the end,” one diplomat said.

On a visit to Qatar this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nonetheless signaled that the United States and its European allies may be less persistent in their long-standing preference for stability in the Middle East and North Africa rather than democracy that could initially bring Islamic and more nationalist forces to power – a policy that has fueled anti-Western sentiment among large segments of the region’s population.

Addressing the Forum for the Future launched in 2004 by the G-8 group of industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil group, Clinton bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open their political systems and economies and warned that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." Clinton said the region's governments need to share power with civic and volunteer groups to tackle issues like exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources. Pointing to unemployment rates of 20% and up, the secretary said "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and are demanding reforms, including eradication of corruption.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Middle East Heralds New Year With Winter of Discontent

By James M. Dorsey

The Middle East and North Africa welcomed the New Year with a rare phenomenon: protests in an arc stretching from Algeria to Kuwait, directed against repressive regimes at home rather than a foreign power. The protests are a rare outpouring of pent-up frustration and anger at discrimination and failed economic and social policies as well as corruption in a region that is governed by authoritarian governments intolerant of public criticism.

It is too early to conclude that the protests signal a milestone after which Middle Eastern population groups no longer quietly endure repression and economic deprivation and instead increasingly and publicly challenge their authoritarian leaders. Yet even if they are unlikely to repeat the regime-toppling successes of the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe, the protests reflect increased chafing at disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity and good governance. Tunisia is witnessing the most-sustained demonstrations against an Arab government in recent history. The New Year's church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, has sparked a rare public outburst of pent-up Coptic anger. Demonstrators in Algeria this week protested food-price hikes, unemployment and an alleged deterioration of government services. Riots in the southern Jordanian town of Maan erupted following a brawl in which two people were killed. And protests in Kuwait denounced the beating by police of a law professor critical of the government.

The wave of discontent follows a series of underreported economically inspired protests in recent years across North Africa -- including in Tunisia's southern Gafsa mining province in early 2008, in Morocco's impoverished port city of Sidi Ifni in the same year, and in various Egyptian towns over the past several years -- as well as ethnic and political clashes sparked in recent weeks by soccer rivalries in Jordan and Iran. A draw last week in the world's most violent soccer derby between Cairo arch-rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek sparked speculation by Egyptian sports commentators that the government had fixed the match to prevent potential soccer riots that could turn political. Algeria this weekend postponed all national soccer league matches in a bid to prevent games from turning into anti-government protests.

Read further at World Politics Review